These days, Richard Brickhouse spends his time working as a farmer and truck driver based in Rocky Point, N.C. It’s a simpler time for the soft-spoken man, who is quick with a handshake and a smile. Few would guess he’s the same man who made history at Talladega Superspeedway 32 years ago.
Brickhouse was at the massive venue again last October, meeting with Dodge drivers who were celebrating their first year back in Winston Cup racing following a long absence. The manufacturer hasn’t entered victory lane at Talladega since 1976, but Brickhouse was the first-ever winner at what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway, and he did it in a Dodge Charger Daytona back in 1969.
“That was a special time for me,” said Brickhouse, who last raced in an ARCA event in 1994. “Coming back here brings back a lot of memories, and I was just happy I could be a part of it. Things have changed a whole lot since then.”
Brickhouse raced full-time from 1968 through 1970, earning more than $50,000 in 32 events – big money during NASCAR’s formative years.
Brickhouse grew up in Wilmington, N.C., and caught the racing bug when a track was built nearby.
“I had always been interested in mechanics and engine building, and when the track went up I knew I had to race,” he said. “That was way back before racing got to be such a big business. I built my own cars, won two races at Wilmington, and that sort of put me in a position to move up.”
Brickhouse’s NASCAR career began when he bought a 1967 Plymouth from Richard Petty, and ran it to a fourth-place finish in his first start at Rockingham in 1968.
The next season was the historic one for Brickhouse. His one victory came at Talladega, and he also had a top-five finish and seven top-10s in 24 races. At the close of the year, he was 25th in the points race. Brickhouse also won a pair of rookie awards at Daytona in 1969 – one for being the top independent driver and the other for Rookie of the Race.
His 39th and final NASCAR race came in 1982. Basically it came down to timing – he just never seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
However, Brickhouse has few regrets. Still a huge fan of NASCAR, he is amazed at how much the sport has changed.
“These days you have to be a lot more than just a driver,” he said. “You have to be an actor – you have to be able to act and look good on the TV. I think back in the old days it was more fun because all you really had to worry about was racing.”
Although he occasionally misses the competition, Brickhouse is content to be a former race driver and a current truck driver. “You have to adjust to that age thing,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just reality and you have to deal with it. I’m too old to race now, and I’ve accepted the fact that age has taken care of my racing career. But it’s still nice to know I was part of something special, and I’ve made a good life for myself.”
Years of tinkering with restrictor plates have not prevented major accidents.
Another Wild Plate Race Angers Crash-weary Drivers
What offensive lineman likes the holding penalty? How many basketball players (outside the NBA, of course) wish traveling calls didn’t exist?
In essence, rules are designed to promote fair play and equal competition. That’s why NASCAR came up with restrictor-plate racing.
But it would be hard to find a rule more loathed than the one dictating the restriction of airflow through the carburetor. Especially after the huge crash at the end of the EA Sports 500 – the final plate race of 2001. Still, there is the occasional supporter.
“I like it. It’s fun,” said Monte Carlo driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who took the checkered flag at Talladega Oct. 21. “I like racing on the speedways. But I have to admit – I don’t have anything to compare it to. I’ve never raced without the plate at Daytona or Talladega.”
Then there are those who beg to differ – and they are legion.
“I think it would be much better racing if it wasn’t four- and five-wide for 500 miles and the entire race wasn’t like a 42-car moving parking lot,” said 2000 Rookie of the Year Matt Kenseth, who drives a Ford.
The plate was officially introduced following Bobby Allison’s spectacular crash at Talladega Superspeedway in the spring of 1987. Not only did NASCAR officials begin to worry that speeds on the big tracks were spiraling out of control, but there was also the safety of fans to consider. Allison’s car flew into the catch fence at TSS, and had the vehicle broken through, there would have been fan fatalities the likes of which racing has never seen.
The first step was to introduce the 390-cfm carburetor, which was installed on cars at the ’87 Pepsi Firecracker 400. But it was the 1988 Daytona 500 that was the birthplace of an actual carburetor restriction device, and the plate – a thin piece of metal with four holes that slips between the carburetor and intake manifold – was 1 inch.
Since then, the plate has been reinvented over and over again.
In 1989 the plate was reduced to 15/16-inch for Daytona, and in 1990 at Talladega, it was 29/32-inch. A year later the plate was tinkered with yet again, this time with a reduction to 7/8-inch for Talladega Superspeedway events.
Seemingly settled on the dimensions of the plate, NASCAR officials then began to look at racing trim in an effort to make events more competitive and, in theory, safer.
In the 1992 Daytona 500, 35-degree spoilers were mandated, and during the summer race at the venue spoilers were set at 45 degrees.
In 1993 the superspeedway rules settled on a 40-degree spoiler with a maximum total of 370 inches, and that’s the way the setup remained through the 1995 season.
From this picture it’s easy to see why Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t mind restrictor plates.
But all Winston Cup and Busch teams spend thousands of hours – and millions of dollars – working around the rules without actually breaking them. The result was higher speeds than in the previous three seasons, so NASCAR officials went back to work.
For the Daytona opener in 1996, the plate was increased to 29/32-inch and there was a 14:1 compression ratio. Those rules stood until last year, and there have been almost constant changes ever since.
By the time the 2000 fall race came to Talladega, things got really interesting.
Prior to what was then known as the Winston 500, the plate had been increased to 1 inch. Spoiler angles could be no less than 70 degrees and no more than 71 degrees. A 1-inch-deep forward-facing flange on top of the rear spoiler was required, and there was a 4-inch minimum clearance on the front air dam.
Also added was a 1 3/8-inch-high by 40-inch-wide air deflector located on the roof, 10 inches rearward of the windshield.
After exceptionally fast Saturday morning practice times, however, the plate was dropped to 15/16-inch before Happy Hour practice, and that setting was used in the race.
In the spring 2001 Talladega race, the Ford spoiler was decreased from 59 to 57 inches and the Dodge roof deflector adjusted to form a straight line; while for the EA Sports 500 the Ford spoiler was 55 1/2 inches and the Pontiac air deflector lowered from 1 3/8 to 1 1/4 inches.
Tests involving 19 teams were held at Talladega in August, setting the stage for even more changes before next month’s Daytona 500, the next restrictor-plate race on the slate.
“We’ll make some changes before the 2002 Daytona 500,” vows NASCAR official Jim Hunter. “We’ll meet with the drivers and come up with a plan so we don’t have things happen like the big crash at Talladega.
“I don’t know what the changes will be, but we’ll work with the drivers and get the situation straightened out.”